Simon Hart is the Secretary of State for Wales.
Wasn’t it Ron Davies – the former Labour Secretary of State for Wales – who said that devolution is a process, not an event?
I wonder what he would have made of Wales’ First Ministers recent comments that “the Union is over as we know it”. Knowing Ron, he would have spotted the real reason for this sudden reference to “home rule” – a realisation that to stay in post on May 6 Mark Drakeford needs to extend not just an olive branch but the whole tree to his separatist friends in Plaid Cymru.
The wider context of the First Minister’s comment was a criticism of the “institutional architecture” between the devolved administrations and UK Government.
His sudden fascination with constitutional detail seems out of place at a time when all eyes are on economic recovery.
It is regrettable that the Welsh Labour Government has created political barriers. Sometimes these barriers have distorted fact with political spin, leading to an us-versus-them narrative in different parts of the United Kingdom.
In Wales we are “one people” and “one society”, made up of different cultural backgrounds but all with one common identity. It is a tolerant and diverse society that I am deeply proud of, as is most of Wales. Being fiercely patriotic and supportive of the strengths that a union provides is not a contradiction in terms. It isn’t a political gesture but a distinctly practical one. Yet in their own way both Nicola Sturgeon and Drakeford have painted it as an either/or choice, by trying to force a debate that is not a priority in the day to days lives of most people.
The Welsh Government is not the same thing as Wales, and the two should not be conflated. In last week’s Budget we committed to a range of ways to get more investment into Wales, and we want to involve local authorities, communities and their elected MPs, as well as to forge a collaborative approach with the administration in Cardiff Bay. A mechanism to get cash to the areas that need it most should not be the subject of a row. The Welsh Government alone does not have a monopoly on being able to make decisions in the best interests of the Welsh people.
That is why we are putting local communities firmly back in the driving seat. It’s why, by combining what is best about local decision making with the strength and security that the UK Treasury can provide, we are levelling up the life chances of everyone in the nation.
Yet the Welsh Government’s response to last week’s budget was disappointing, focusing on its own resourcing despite the £740 million uplift that was added to its existing £15 billion of core funding.
In its response to the Budget, the Welsh Government made no mention of support for Welsh people both in and out of work, the furlough and self-employed schemes put in place last year by UK Government – which have protected over 500,000 Welsh jobs so far, nor any reference to the six-month extension of the universal credit uplift and £500 for Working Tax Credit claimants will continue to shore up the finances of people across Wales. And there was a deafening silence from Cardiff Bay about fuel and beer duty, or the vital extension of reduced VAT for the holiday industry upon which the economy of Wales depends.
We should not think of these vast sums of money as some kind of Treasury favour, deserving of gratitude or subservience. That is to miss the point. But you might think that from any Unionist Government there would be some mention of the new Recovery Loan scheme for businesses and Help to Grow initiatives that will support businesses with training and with paying for productivity-enhancing software, such as HR management and e-commerce.
Or of the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, which all Welsh local authorities can bid into, which will enable the UK Government to fund capital infrastructure projects in every town and community. Or of the £150 million community ownership fund – or “buy your boozer” fund as it is already nicknamed – which will allow Welsh towns and villages to protect at risk pubs or other much-loved leisure venues, keeping them from closure by running them as a community.
There was also bit of “jam today” too for Wales. The Chancellor announced funding for a new Hydrogen Hub at Holyhead and for the Global Centre for Rail Excellence in Neath Port Talbot – both creating up to 1000 jobs throughout their lifespan. To speed up the creation of a further 13,000 jobs, he brought forward funding for three growth deals across Wales, worth £791 million altogether, all of which hardly got a mention.
The UK Government could have given the Welsh Government a £1 trillion funding uplift, and in its public response it would still be £5 short of what it was expecting. This sort of knee-jerk criticism only risks polarising the communities who expect us to make things work for them, not argue about abstract ideas.
For this year’s Senedd elections, the Welsh Conservatives are putting forward an offer for the chance of a Welsh Government that works hand in hand with the UK Government to rebuild our economy. A Welsh Government that will work with the UK Government, not against it.
I hope that our “two for the price of one” special offer will be a sensible and credible offer for voters in Wales in May.